By Joshua Benton
Barely a year after receiving a clean bill of health, the North Texas charter schools run by the Belknap family are in trouble again.
State education officials are investigating allegations of financial impropriety, employees are being laid off to cut costs, and the schools are at risk of state intervention. Officials say the schools should be able to finish out the school year; beyond that is less clear.
“We don’t know how bad things are because they don’t have a good set of books,” said Karen Case, a former Texas Education Agency official who was hired by the schools Tuesday as the new part-time superintendent. “But they are in serious financial trouble.”
The Belknap family operates A+ Academy and Inspired Vision Academy, both in southeastern Dallas. Together they enroll more than 1,500 students, some of whom attended the recently shuttered Wilmer-Hutchins school district.
The family previously ran Rylie Faith Family Academy, but state officials closed that school in 2003 after years of low test scores.
Don and Karen Lewis Belknap, the schools’ co-founders, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Charter schools are public schools funded with state taxpayer dollars but without the traditional governance structure of an elected school board. They have proved controversial because many are run by people with little experience in education or management. Academic performance in many charter schools is poor, and state oversight is limited. Laws can make it hard for the state to close even schools with serious financial and academic problems.
Since opening in 1999, the Belknap schools have received well over $38 million in state funds.
The Belknaps have been under scrutiny since their schools opened. Previous investigations have found that the schools operated without anything approximating a modern accounting system, writing checks to cash when money was needed. They intermingled public and private businesses, at one point setting up a family member’s chiropractic office on campus rent-free. The schools have also produced some of the state’s worst academic performances.
State officials began a series of interventions in 2000, hiring retired public school superintendent Jack Ammons to advise the Belknaps – and later giving him veto power over most of the family’s decisions. The schools had to pay off significant debts, like the $100,000 it owed the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid payroll taxes.
The schools brought in a new superintendent, Gerald “Rosie” Rosebure, who had experience leading traditional school districts.
Having seen progress, Dr. Ammons released the schools from state oversight in 2005. Soon after, Dr. Rosebure resigned for a job closer to his home on Lake Tawakoni. Both men thought the schools were improving.
“When I left we didn’t owe anybody anything – we even had a little fund balance,” Dr. Rosebure said this week. “And I thought the academics were improving. There were some pretty good teachers there.”
But it appears some of the old problems have returned.
The TEA’s financial audit division began investigating about two months ago, according to Rita Chase, the division’s director. She would not detail the allegations. A preliminary report detailing the agency’s findings is nearing completion, she said, but it could be February before a final report is ready for public release.
Problems with spending
The more immediate concern is paying the bills. Dr. Ammons said that the schools owe roughly $700,000 to vendors and had also taken on additional debt.
“There has been indiscriminate spending – that’s the big problem,” Dr. Ammons said. “They also definitely have too many employees.”
He is again serving in an informal supervisory role, along with a state-appointed role he has overseeing another troubled charter school the family runs in El Paso.
At least three employees were laid off Tuesday, and at least three others resigned, according to Dr. Ammons.
The Belknaps have been criticized in the past for putting family members on the schools’ payroll – such as the cousin they put in charge of special education who had previously worked as a cashier at McDonald’s and Kmart. None of the individuals who lost their jobs Tuesday were family members, Dr. Ammons said.
The schools have not been academic successes. At A+ Academy, for instance, just 43 percent of students passed TAKS last spring. That’s an improvement from 30 percent in 2005, but still well below the state average of 67 percent. The school includes pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
‘We want to do it right’
Dr. Case, the new superintendent, formerly led the TEA’s disciplinary arm and has years of experience with troubled schools. She said she believes the Belknaps want to improve.
“Mrs. Belknap said that specifically to me,” she said. “I was really surprised she would be willing to hire me, since I have served the role of enforcer with this school before. She told me, ‘We want to do it right.'”
Dr. Case and Dr. Ammons said they believe the schools should be able to complete the school year, albeit with some substantial cuts in spending.
“Basically there’s just been too much spending on nonessential parts of the school,” Dr. Ammons said. “That has to stop if they’re going to survive. And I mean that. Not only will we have a hard time meeting the daily expenses, we’ve got to make up all that we owe.”
The future, however, will depend on the TEA audit and the agency’s willingness to keep the schools open.
Some in Austin have expressed a willingness to be more aggressive with troubled charter schools, which have traditionally proved difficult to shut down.
“We’re kind of in a corrective mode right now,” Dr. Ammons said. “But it depends on TEA and what they find. As long as I’m there, it’ll stay open. We will cut where it’s necessary to keep the doors open.”